A Real Life Gothic Novel With a Local Twist
By Charlene Perry
Editor Notes by Harriett Burt
Editor’s Note: It seemed to this writer like a good time to take a break from street names for a bit and look at some other subjects. It was hard to make a choice from the many interesting columns written by the late City Historian, Charlene Perry. But this one, written in February, 1983, really struck a chord. Nowadays, we would call a story like this a romance novel. (HJB)
How to condense all of the facets of a Gothic novel of the type so popular today into one column is our problem. And, it is all true: at least, so says John F. S. Smith writing about his mother in Slocum’s 1882 “History of Contra Costa County”.
It began with the introduction of James Boylston, a captain in the British army, to a daughter of the Morgans, loyal Whigs (Patriots) of Massachusetts whose mother absolutely refused to entertain the idea of her daughter being courted by a Britisher – this was early in the Revolution and tempers were running high.
Love at first sight swept the young couple into clandestine meetings which culminated in marriage, arranged by the young lady’s brother, David. This after the girl’s mother threatened to have the young Britisher seized by her slaves and delivered to General Washington as a spy. (Ed. Note: slavery was legal in Massachusetts until just after the Revolution).
Soon, the Captain had to return to war, never to return, leaving his young wife and infant daughter, Mary. The young widow succumbed within a short time leaving little Mary to be reared by Uncle David. He promised the dying woman on her deathbed that he would see to her child.
Grandma Morgan never relented and General Morgan kept his promise to do his best by Mary. While the two were visiting at the home of the Lord Chief Justice of Canada, during Mary’s fifteenth year, Mary saw a portrait of the nephew of an Admiral Halloway, who was also visiting at the government residence.
Comparing the portrait with that of a miniature in a locket she wore, Mary felt the resemblance between the portrait and the picture of her own dear, lost father was so exact that she showed the Admiral. He was astounded, never having heard that his nephew had married in the US. His untimely death as a hero left vast estates to the Admiral’s eldest son, who was next in line of inheritance.
At the old Admiral’s insistence and with his help, papers were prepared to prove her rights and they journeyed to England where the heir refused to relinquish his claim. This caused a rift between father and son and Mary and the old man returned to Canada to prepare a better case. Alas, the old gentleman died before they could pursue the matter to its finish. But before he died, he prevailed upon the Lord Chief Justice to carry the matter back to England to “enforce the claim of James Boylston’s proper heir and dispossess the degenerate son.” So it was that Mary and the Justice made haste to return to England. Fate intervened and one sad day, after sentencing a particularly painful miscreant, the old man died of a ruptured blood vessel.
Poor Mary, by now totally undone, was loathe to carry the matter further and so, having been given property by her uncle David, she returned to the state of her birth --Virginia—where she married Captain James Smith of the United States Navy. They had three sons and a daughter.
Why is this story so interesting to Martinez? Mary Boylston Smith lies buried in Alhambra Cemetery, having died here in 1857. Her son, Col. William M. Smith, founder of the city and husband of Susana de Martinez, lies somewhere nearby having died three years earlier.
John F. S. Smith, the youngest brother of William Smith and himself County Sheriff for a time, 1853-55, and Assessor from 1857 to 1859, speaks of his mother:
“My old and truly venerated mother, after having joined her two remaining children in California, died in February, 1857, revered and honored far and wide; cradled in the Revolution, and during her early and long widowhood, the social drawing room companion of Jefferson, Madison, Webster, Clay, Jackson and other bright stars of America’s greatness – she was a living cyclepaedia of her country’s history.”
Charlene Perry – February, 1983
At the time of Col. Smith’s death, suicides were often buried without a headstone. Presumably there was some number nd location assigned but the Alhambra Cemetery records are very incomplete. In 1983, the Martinez Cemetery Commission allowed Martinez Historical Society and E Clampus Vitus to place a small headstone in his honor which is located in the center of the cemetery. Mrs. Smith’s burial site is unmarked due to the long neglect of the cemetery and the loss of so many early records.
The History of Contra Costa County California published in 1882 by Slocum & Co of San Francisco, is considered by local history experts to be the more generally accurate of the several county histories published between 1882 and the late 1920s. All were to some extent ‘vanity’ publications with more attention given to those who contributed generously to the publication costs. John F. S. Smith, who in the late 1870s lived on a ranch in Ygnacio Valley, must have been most generous as his autobiography ran for 21 pages, far longer than most of the others. It is fascinating to read but does make one wonder just how expansive Mr. Smith’s imagination became as he wrote about himself and his family three decades after brother William’s death.
With that in mind, here are brother John’s observations about his big brother William which fit the impression one gets from reading other contemporary sources about his life in San Francisco and Martinez:
“My eldest brother, the late Colonel William M. Smith, and founder of the town of Martinez, having run away to sea to get rid of the pedagogues, they being too much of the Teddy O’Rourke kind to suit his temper, and although he subsequently became a man of culture and refinement, it was acquired by his own exertions as responsive to the calls of a brilliant natural intellect. He was a boy of courage, wit and pride, and a favorite with his schoolmates, but was termed a “bad boy” by teachers----and, as such, was the recipient of hardships only, which he invariably returned in evil tricks upon the master, and instead of learning, hated books and schoolmasters in particular. My brother, Wm. M. Smith, having been an early pioneer of California, and founder of the town of Martinez is entitled to more than a passing notice.”
John F. S. Smith records one more story about James Boylston, the gallant British officer, which frankly seems too perfect to be true but it is a heartwarming account for a romance novel if it is not actually true.
“We have a family story, which, as it concerns Washington, may be listened to with interest.
My great-grandfather Morgan, being one of General Washington’s warmest supporters, was frequently visited by him for counsel and advice. My grandfather, then young Boylston, was of course introduced and became acquainted with the great man on such occasions. In the course of the bloody war which followed, Washington in the early dawn was inspecting the outer or picket lines, when he discovered a British soldier in the act of leveling his musket on him. Whilst facing the man in expectation of the bullet, he perceived an officer dashing rapidly up to the man, and in the next instant disarmed him, with these words: “King George expects from you the duty of a soldier and not that of an assassin,” and then sent him in under arrest. Washington, in bowing his thanks, begged to know the name of the preserver of his life. The response was: “at some future time I hope to have the pleasure of giving it.” The General subsequently learned that the gallant officer was Captain James Boylston, and that he fell mortally wounded on the battle field the same day and died on board a transport shortly after. On relating the incident to the family at the close of the war, he begged to be allowed to adopt little Mary, as he was childless, in gratitude to the dead father. The family declined the honorable request.”
Pending further investigation and research, the most appropriate closing for a romantic/gothic paragraph may simply be…… “The End”.
Martinez Historical Society
1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553 (925) 228-8160